A Complete Guide to Sri Lanka During Off-Season

Why Sri Lanka is Amazing

Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.

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Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:

  • Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.

  • Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!

  • If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.

  • AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted. 

  • Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.



Our Travel Plan

Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).

Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:



Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.

Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.

Train from Colombo to Kandy.

Train from Kandy to Ella.

Care hire for three days:

    Ella to Sigiriya

    Around Sigiriya and its attractions

    Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi


We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient. 


Colombo/Negundi

Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.

Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.



The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella

Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.

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The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.

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Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!

Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season. 

Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.

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Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.

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The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.

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Ella

Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.

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You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.

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If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock

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While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.


Cooking Class

Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!

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After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.

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Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.

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Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast! 

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Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya

We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.

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Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!

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Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.

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It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.

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The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.

Sigiriya

There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.

We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!

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Dambulla Cave Temple

There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.

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Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.

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Lion’s Rock

Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.

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Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.

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Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.

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Elephant Safari

Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.

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There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.

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Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.

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Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!

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50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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16 of Our Favorite Hostels in Southeast Asia

16 of Our Favorite Hostels in Southeast Asia

There are definitely some universals you can expect from all hostels: dorm beds, community kitchens, the inevitable person who snores, the late nights and early mornings as people catch their budget travel in and out. But there are some places that just do it better than the rest. Here are our top 16 places from our five month experience of living the hostel life in southeast Asia.

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Ultimate Adventures in Vang Vieng

The lush green river valley of Vang Vieng is a less-frequented adventure hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Hello cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world!

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Hot Air Ballooning

I said cheapest in the world. It’s somewhere between $80-90 each (as of 2018). You have the option to go in the early morning or later in the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon (golden hour baby)!

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Make sure you book your flight for one of your first days in Vang Vieng, so you can reschedule in case of bad weather. They usually send two balloons up per session - get in the second balloon so you can take pictures of the first one going up! 

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Keep in mind, it’s not very easy to take pictures of each other while you're in the basket. Maybe bring a selfie stick? Otherwise you’ll have to awkwardly hang off the side… which is what we did.

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Also it’s HOT in the basket. Like standing next to a flamethrower kind of hot. Wear short sleeves and don’t forget deodorant! The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes, plus a rough landing.

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Blue Lagoons 

The Blue Lagoons outside of Vang Vieng are popular for lazy days in the heat. Blue Lagoon 1 is often pretty crowded, but Blue Lagoon 3 is slowly growing in popularity as well. All of them have entrance fees of about $1.20. We took a tuk-tuk 30 minutes out of town to #3 for a hungover float on the tubes. There’s also a zip-line and a rope swing for those with a bit more energy during their visit.

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Sim’s Adventures

We missed out on this some classic Vang Vieng adventures, but our best friend Simona (@simonamusto, check her out on instagram!) filled in a few blanks for us:

At first glance, it seems quiet, kind of dirty and unexciting. On our first day, our hostel roomie recommended we rent a motorbike and discover the “real” Vang Vieng. So we did and ventured out to explore. It was definitely not the easiest journey, with construction sites and bumpy roads at times. But what we saw was beyond our expectations. There’s so much beauty and hidden wilderness; children playing in the river, animals eating the lush green grass, limestone cliffs, jungle paths leading to waterfalls (check out Kaeng Nyui Waterfall!) that make the journey worth it. 

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The next morning, we decided to go river tubbing. Groups of ‘tubbers’ stopped at the first of three bars, shyly ordered their first beer at 11am and it never really stopped till sunset… People got drunker by the hour, but it was fun to socialize, play some games and cruise down the river with a beer in hand, watching the sunset and hot air balloons pass above us. The friends we made that day were the same ones we went out with at night for drinks and dancing at the many bars/clubs in Vang Vieng- it gets as wild as you want.

x Mama Sim

Nightlife

The lazy river valley town may not seem like it, but Vang Vieng turns up. There’s a surprising number of bars and clubs, and I promise you can stay out until 4am if you want to. The dance floor at Sakura Bar gets sweaty. No matter what your reason for coming to Vang Vieng is, you can always find what you’re looking for.


One more thing from Sim…

*As a foodie, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations of places to eat. First, an Italian restaurant called ‘Il Tavolo’ that serves some pretty amazing authentic pizza. The other is the 1$ sandwiches from the wonderful vendors on the main road, that are packed with whatever you want and keep you full for hours, I think about how much I miss those often..

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More Pics!

Kicking Back in Pai

Ahh, Pai. What is NOT to like about Pai? That's my question. 


Just a few hours, and a couple hundred turns, north of Chiang Mai, this mountain paradise was recommended to us from everyone we met who’d traveled across Thailand. It was usually referred to as “the place where you get stuck” or “the stoner’s paradise.” Everyone who mentioned it told us it was their favorite place in Thailand. 

Pai is full of amazing coffee shops - this one was right next to our hostel.

Pai is full of amazing coffee shops - this one was right next to our hostel.

Right they were. 

Not only is Pai absolutely beautiful, but it’s become a haven for travelers and expats alike who’re looking for a more laidback place to set up shop for a while. With a stunning natural backdrop, plenty of daytime adventures to take, and seemingly endless restaurants and bars, Pai is an easy paradise. 

I have to be fully honest, Anna and I spent 5D/4N in Pai doing nearly nothing. It was fantastic, we regret nothing. That was all we wanted to do after what felt like forever of constant go-go. We put our feet up and said NOPE to everything other than food, the night market, and a few solid nights out with some German friends we met at our hostel. 

So, without further ado, here’s a solid list of things I can personally recommend and the things my less lazy friends recommended to me.

How to Get to Pai


Simple enough. You’re probably getting into Pai from Chiang Mai, which is the largest city in northern Thailand. You can hop a bus from Arcade Bus station, purchase tickets from just about any accommodation or tour center, and you’re set. They run about 5x per day and take roughly four hours. 

WARNING: This road is turns on turns on turns. 762 of them to be exact. If you get motion or car sick, dramamine is a great idea. 

You can also fly to Pai from Chiang Mai. Seems a bit like overkill to me since they’re so close but if you’re looking to go straight through the airport that is an option. 

Your last option is to motorbike. This is probably the best way to see the drive if you’re comfortable on a bike. It is also the most dangerous due to weather, the roads, and other drivers. Please only do this is you’re comfortable on a bike and WEAR A HELMET! So many people get into accidents on this road and you don’t want to cut your trip to Pai short before you even get up there. 

Where to Stay in Pai

These are all hostels, though I’m sure Pai has some beautiful, slightly pricier options if that’s what you’re looking for. I recommend checking Trip Advisor!

Jikko Harem

This was where we stayed. It’s located slightly off the Pai’s main area, but the wonderful staff who run the place will give you a lift into town whenever you want. It’s beautiful, clean, quiet, and the hostel chain owns two bars in town that you’ll get awesome discounts at. We were going to stay for two nights before switching to Common Grounds and just never did. Highly recommend.

Hostelworld Link

P.S. I think now they have a more central location, though we never saw it. 

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Common Grounds

Probably the most popular hostel in Pai, Common Grounds is the place to stay if you want to be right next to the action and get your party on every night. Definitely a bit pricier than some of your other options, but that comes with demand.

Hostelworld Link

Green Hostel & Skatepark

The other hostel we looked at. Looks beautiful and has fantastic reviews as well as a skatepark attached.

Hostelworld Link

Where to Eat in Pai

This is a toughie because where do I begin? You’ve got so, so many fantastic options in Pai, especially if you’re vegan/vegetarian. Without going into too much detail, here’s a solid list of where we went/where we were sent:

  • Earthtone Vegetarian Cafe**

  • Ganesh

  • Cafecito (Mexican)**

  • Om Garden Cafe

  • FatCat

  • Oasis Bar & Restaurant 

  • Pen’s Kitchen

Breakfast at Cafecito.

Breakfast at Cafecito.

Where to Party in Pai

Let’s level here: if you’re headed to Pai it’s fair to assume that you’re looking to party, to smoke, to get a little twisted. 

If you’re looking to drink, there are endless options for you. Here are some we checked out and heard about:

  • C Bar**

  • Jikko Bar

  • Yellow Sun

  • Boom Bar

  • Why Not?**


If you’re looking for a little something more, there are two places you can go: Sunset Bar and Paradise Bar. We went to both to check them out, they’ve definitely got a lot of hype, and preferred the atmosphere at Paradise but the drinks at Sunset.

Warning: drugs are illegal in Thailand and you can 100 percent be prosecuted for purchasing/consuming them, regardless of how many people do it or whether or not a place is “chill” about it. In Pai, specifically, police raid the main drag and are stationed both near the bridge leading to Sunset/Paradise at night and at tourist hotspots like the Grand Canyon. They can and will search you if they suspect you!

Adventures in Pai

Heading to Pai to explore some of the natural beauties in the area? You’ve got plenty of options!

The trickiest element is getting from one or the other. The easiest way to zip around Pai is by motorbike. You can easy rent these in town or just ride yours around if you drove up on one. Your other option is a rental car, taxi, a tuk-tuk, or a tour, depending on what you’re trying to do. 

Some of your options for scooter rentals.

Some of your options for scooter rentals.


Some of Pai’s natural highlights include:

  • Pai Canyon (go for sunset)

  • Pai Hot Springs

  • Pam Bok or Mor Paeng Waterfall

  • Pai Piranha Fishing Park

  • Boon Ko Ku So Bridge


Night Market

Looking for something to do in the city? Explore Pai’s fantastic night market! You’ll find wonderful street food and tons of crafts, jewelry, and clothing lining the main walking street in Pai each night. 

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A Self-Guided Bar Crawl in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and the largest city in the north, is the second largest city in the country and the northern equivalent of Saigon in the south. Almost anyone traveling throughout Vietnam will either begin or finish their tour in Hanoi, and it’s a fantastic place to do that.

Hanoi is ancient and no area better reflects its rich history than the Old Quarter. Chaotic and colorful, this area of the city somehow manages to make you feel like time has stopped - even though the thousands of motorbikes and people that clog its narrow streets never do. 

It’s here, in this crazy little section of the city, that our bar crawl takes place.

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Anna and I stayed in Hanoi for about a week, opting to stay behind when MJ took a motorbike tour north to do the Ha Giang Loop with the boys. To fill the time, we wandered all over the Old Quarter, explored the famous lakes, ate at pop up street restaurants, took a tour of an art gallery, and fashioned ourselves a self-guided bar crawl of some of Hanoi’s greatest bars.

If you’ve got a couple of free nights in Hanoi, or hell, even just one, check out some (or all?!) of these epic spots.

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Mojito Bar & Lounge

Cocktail to try: The Pho Cocktail

This quirky venue is tucked off a small side street in the Old Quarter and is a great place to head for live music and the famous Pho Cocktail. I won’t spoil the surprise of how it’s made, but I will tell you that it tastes weirdly close to actual Pho and it’s delicious!

Bonus: Straight upstairs from Mojito Bar & Lounge is another cocktail bar called The Alchemist. It wasn’t open yet when we went up to check it out - but if you’re looking for an easy next location to try it doesn’t get much closer than one flight of stairs. 

Mad Botanist

Cocktail to try: Anything with gin!

This gin bar has multiple floors, one of which is a swanky, jazz inspired cocktail lounge. Think white tuxedos and red velvet floors. The other is a rooftop space that looks out over St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Between the stunning view and the unique gin cocktails, this place is well worth a visit.

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Pasteur Street Brewing Co.

Cocktail to try: just kidding! Get that beer flight, honey. Jasmine IPA all the way.

What bar crawl is incomplete without some fantastic craft beer? This craft beer company brews up some awesome beers that are sold throughout Vietnam. This location is particularly great due to an inviting outdoor space and the option of giving a bunch of their beers a try with a beer flight. Don’t miss out on this one!

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Polite & Co. 

Cocktail to try: Anything off their “Mixology Journey” menu.

This place is AMAZING. Polite & Co. has a super funky, modern design and the bartenders there mix up some truly unique creations. When we went, they were featuring drinks that were based off of Asian Street Foods. Anna tried the Tum Yum Sour and I tried the Indian Spices cocktail and both were admittedly odd but delicious. We loved the atmosphere here so much we stuck around for a second drink!

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Standing Bar

Cocktail to try: craft beer all the way!

While it’s not exactly in the Old Quarter, Standing Bar is a fun place near Truc Bach Lake that offers a great selection of craft beer and an even better view of the lake from the upstairs terrace!

Red River Tea Room

Cocktail to try: Whiskey slaps anyone? Fancy a game of Cards Against Humanity?

Talk about a tucked away gem. Not near the Old Quarter, but worth the commute, Red River Tea Room is a little bit of whatever you want it to be. Want a great craft beer with a view of the West Lake from the roof? Fancy a round of cards or Cards Against Humanity? Want to cuddle the dog, pull a book from the shelf, and curl up with a glass of wine for an hour or so? Now you know where to go.

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Still Going…? On to Beer Street!

The quintessential going out street in the Old Quarter, Bia Hoi Junction, or Beer Street, as it’s so aptly nicknamed, is the place to go if you’re looking to party all night with locals and travelers alike. Line your stomach before you go and see how long you can keep up with the $0.25 beer offerings. 

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A few more suggestions…

We didn’t make it to these, but you might!

  • Le Pub Hanoi

  • King Pirate’s Pub

  • Binh Minh’s Jazz Club

  • Rockshore Hanoi

  • Tadioto

  • Bar Beta

Tailored Clothes and Night Markets in Hoi An

If you have a slightly better idea of all the places you’re going than we typically do, you already know on your way to Hoi An that this is THE place in Vietnam to shop till you drop. It was by chance that we were traveling with someone who knew that Hoi An is world famous for tailored clothing, so we had some time to prepare before we arrived.

It is absolutely overwhelming how many tailored clothing stores there are in this colorful city. There are hundreds of tailors, thousands of fabrics, and millions of styles for you to choose from, and it’s quite intimidating to navigate without a bit of prep. You typically will need at least 2-3 days to get any one thing done, because clothes need to be measured and adjusted multiple times, and longer than that if you’re getting a substantial number of things (guilty). 

Here’s what worked and didn’t work for us throughout our tailoring experience in Hoi An. 

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Getting Clothes Tailored in Hoi An

Step 1: Know what you want (kind of) and know your budget

PINTEREST my friends. Anyone who knows me, or at least my social media habits, knows that I’m a self-professed queen of Pinterest. I’m addicted. It’s the virgo in me, can’t get enough of lists and folders and folders within folders. 

Other than helping me navigate the arduous task of learning how to cook for myself in college, Pinterest served all of us so well in Hoi An. The best way to get what you want out of your tailoring experience in Hoi An is to know what you want before you go. Every tailor will try and sell you on more ideas, more options, this coat, that blouse, but if you know what you want you’re way more likely to get exactly that.

Sounds redundant, right? You’d be surprised at how many people buy things in this city and then wonder why they made the choices they did after they leave. Trust me, explore Pinterest and the wider internet and think to yourself, “what do I want tailored?” AND, “what would I buy designer if I had all the money in world?”

To get you started, here are some ideas we, or someone we knew, started with:

  • Tailored, two piece suits

  • Linen dresses and pants

  • Winter coats

  • Burberry or Coach winter coat (they will come out EXACTLY the same minus the fancy logo)

  • Leather jackets & biker vests

  • Leather shoes

  • Formal dresses & jumpsuits

After figuring out an idea of what you want, figure out how much you want to pay, total, for everything you get. As you go around the shops, you’ll get an idea of what each item you want will cost and you can deduct it from your total budget. This is the best way to not go over what you want to spend, which is easy to do here!

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Step 2: Exploring your options

Since we arrived a day early, Sim and I spent a whole just wandering the area around our hostel and checking in on all the shops around our block. I really, really recommend taking this step before you begin getting things made. Prices, fabrics, and tailor skill will all vary A LOT, so it’s worth going around with your budget and your pictures to figure out the best place(s) to get things made. 

We took pictures of stores and fabrics that we liked so that we knew which to go back to and what we wanted to get made in each. If they couldn’t give us a price we wanted, we kept going. The tailors will try and convince you to buy something immediately because most of their business happens on the spot. Don’t get roped in! They will be right where you left them tomorrow. 

*TIP* The tailor shops on the main streets and in Old Town are bigger, more popular, and comparatively more expensive. We walked around a square block and found everything we wanted for decidedly cheaper than we would’ve found it on the Main Street. 

The hostel we stayed at was called Hoa Binh Hostel in Cam Pho Ward and it was great. Amazing breakfast, cheap and clean rooms, nice showers, etc. THAT AREA is great for tailors that will be a little less busy and less pricey than those on Duong Tran Hung Dao (nearby main street).

 

Step 3: Choosing your tailors

Like I said, there are endless options for you here. We chose our tailors (we used about 5-6 different ones between all of us) based on a couple of criteria:

  • Fabric (quality, color, texture, etc.)

  • Price (you can always negotiate but you’ll quickly see it varies quite a bit, especially from material to material)

  • Time (the whole process can take a while, so always check you have enough time before paying for anything!)

Take pictures and get quotes from a number of places before narrowing it down. It’s the easiest way to get exactly what you want!

Here are a couple of the tailor shops we used that we would recommend. They’re all located on the block around Hoa Binh Hostel.

  • LyLy Tailors

  • Rubin Tailors

  • Babi Tailors (these ladies were AMAZING - we all got numerous things at a great price and the quality was perfect)

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Step 4: Negotiating

Now for the fun part…

The entire tailoring process can be negotiated. This is the main reason I recommend shopping around before choosing a tailor. You’ll get a good sense of what something should cost and you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the tailor you end up going with.

The more you buy, the less each individual thing will cost, like anything else you’d buy in SE Asia. If you can work with a friend, even better!

Here are a couple of things that will affect the price of your tailored clothes:

  • Size of the piece (a jumpsuit does not equal a romper does not equal a pair of shorts, etc.)

  • Material (leather and linen will always cost you more than cotton and silk)

  • Complexity of the piece (fabric covered buttons, complicated stitching, etc.)

  • Quantity you’re buying

  • Location

  • Your own power of negotiation

Always remember that, in SE Asia, negotiating is a way of life. They won’t sell you something if they don’t make a profit. HOWEVER, this does not give you the right to be rude or irritable with the people you’re negotiating with. Be patient, but firm, and you’ll usually end up getting a price you’re happy with. Remember - that Burberry coat could be a couple hundred or a couple thousand!

 

Step 5: The Tailoring Process

Depending on what you’re getting made, this whole process can take one day or four. It’s a good idea to ask how long something will take (roughly) so you know you have enough time!

The tailoring process, at least our experience with it, goes a little like this:

Day 1

  1. Choose a tailor

  2. Pick what you want made and the fabric you want (again, pictures help a lot!)

  3. Negotiate the price (it will all be in USD) and work out payment. Some places will ask you to pay upfront, some will ask you to pay half upfront and the rest on delivery, some will let you pay everything at the end. Remember, once you’ve ordered something you will have to pay for it whether you like it or not!

  4. Initial measurements

Day 2 or Day 3 (depending on how fast they’re working)

  1. First fitting

  2. Adjustments

Day 3 or 4

  1. Second fitting

  2. Wrap up and pay OR additional adjustments

We had some things ready on the first go, some things took up to three or four fittings. Some things take longer than others to get right, so be ready to be patient - it’ll be worth it in the end. 

*TIP* It helped me a lot to make a schedule in my phone to keep track of all the fittings I had to do and where they were. I had 10+ things made at 5+ tailors, so I had more to work with than most of our friends, but either way this helped out a lot. 

*PRO-TIP* In between all those fittings, go grab sandwiches at Anthony Bordain’s (RIP) favorite banh mi shop - Banh Mi Queen! Honestly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and they’re only $1. I think we ate over 50 of them between five of us before we left Hoi An. If you stay at Hoa Binh maybe you’ll see the tally we wrote out on the locker in our room 😜 

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Step 6: Shipping Home

Ahh yes, everyone’s favorite thing to deal with while on a backpacking trip (or any trip, let’s be honest). Once you’ve bought all your goodies, and a few lanterns from the night market, you’re probably going to have to get them home by some means other than your own carry on! 

Each time we’ve shipped things home before Hoi An, we used the local post office (to varying degrees of success). However, in Hoi An, because shopping and tailored clothes are such a big business in this city, there’s a private service you can use that’ll come right to you with everything you need. The price is roughly the same as the local post and they send you updates throughout the shipping process to help you keep track of your box. They even help out with customs!

The service is called Dai Nam Postal Service and they have great reviews. We contacted them through our hostel and they were at our door within 30 minutes. 

 

Shopping in Old Town and the Night Market

Just when you were about to say, “I can’t possibly be expected to buy all this and ship it back home,” I’m going to jump in here with a, “but wait, there’s more!” 

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Hoi An is a truly beautiful city, and nowhere is this more true than the city’s Old Town. Nestled next to the river running through Hoi An, there’s never a bad time to explore this area of the city. After a few hours strolling through the cobblestone streets under the light of innumerable paper lanterns, you’ll certainly agree that, night or day, this city feels like a fairytale. 

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Across the river from Old Town, you’ll find the heart of Hoi An’s nightlife in the shape of rooftop bars, clubs, and pubs lining the street, and the city’s night market. Here you can sample the best, and cheapest, of Hoi An’s street food as well as dazzling array of local wares. Stalls overflowing with lit paper lanterns (yes, they collapse!), old school gongs, unique and artistic miniatures that you have just enough room for in your box - this place is dangerous! And you absolutely can’t miss it. 

After all, you’ve got to do something in Hoi An while the tailors are crafting your custom clothes. 

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Exploring Dalat with Dalat Adventure Tours

With no competition, Dalat was my favorite city in Vietnam. The colonial style city is found north of Saigon up in the mountains and has a uniquely beautiful culture and climate that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. 

The weather is cooler, the hostels incredible and dirt cheap (we stayed at Wolfpack and would highly recommend it), it’s not too crowded, and there’s no shortage of adventures you can go on to explore the surrounding wilderness. 

I went up there with one of our friends while MJ caught a plane to Taipei with her friend Anna. Sim and I filled our days with jungle treks, canyoning, and family dinners at Wolfpack Hostel and had an absolute blast for four days. Here’s a taste of what it’s like exploring the more adventurous side of Dalat.

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Canyoning

Canyoning has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it, either because of time or money, so I jumped at the chance to try it in Dalat. Our hostel recommended Dalat Adventure Tours, which had great reviews, and for only $50 per person for a whole day of canyoning, I wasn’t going to look elsewhere.

So what exactly is “canyoning”? The tour company explains it as “white water rafting without the raft,” which is actually a perfect way to describe it. We spent the whole day navigating an enormous river as it twisted and poured itself through the mountains in Dalat. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you hike, sometimes you rappel down a waterfall. 

Sounds cool? You’re damn right it does.

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The tour guides at Dalat Adventure Tours speak amazing English and were incredibly friendly throughout the whole day. They first teach everyone the basics, which, in this case, includes rappelling down the side of a small, slanted wall. It took some people (me..) a few tries to get it right, but they’re very patient and make sure everyone is comfortable before heading out.

We hit the trail and had the most epic day. In total, we rappelled three times (actually much easier to do down a cliff than down the wall), hiked a solid few miles, cliff jumped over a waterfall (the highest point is 11m - SO much fun), and even threw ourselves down a natural waterslide. 

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The guides are amazing. They work hard to make it an enjoyable, safe day for everyone and even take professional pictures for you all day, free of charge. Our day was wrapped up with a delicious picnic lunch of banh mi sandwiches on the side of the river.

It’s definitely a strenuous day, so be ready for that, but you can’t ask for a more adventurous experience in Dalat and I highly, highly recommend it. 

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Jungle Trekking

Oh boy, my legs were hurting after this one. 

Disclaimer: I am NOT a hiker. I occasionally will be seen making the odd attempt at hiking a reasonably sized mountain/hill, but that’s rare. For the most part I’m dragged/coerced up a mountain and halfway to the top, when it’s just a little too late to turn back, I curse myself, the nature, and whoever’s idea it was because it probably wasn’t mine.

Turns out jungle trekking is just hiking through a jungle. Go figure. So this was a long day for me, but absolutely worth it. Sim and I were the only ones booked to go on this tour on the day we went, so we got the chance to go at our own pace and grill the guides with all the questions we could think of. 

 

This was my second tour with Dalat Adventure Tours and it was every bit as wonderful as the first. One of the guides who took me canyoning came again with us on this trek through the jungle. Both he and the other guide were patient, friendly, and funny. 

The day started in a small village in Dalat called Lat Village, or Chicken Village. You’ll understand why they call it that when you get there. As you take a deceptively easy stroll through the picturesque coffee plantation, the guides will explain the local tribes and customs of the locals in Dalat, as well as how they make their famous weasel coffee. I’ll leave it to them to describe that delicious process…

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After a while you start heading up into the jungle and the mountains. You’ll pass through an enormous pine forest that looks and smells exactly like Cape Cod, MA. You’ll make your way across rivers and up steep climbs into the thick of the forest. When you arrive, sweaty and out of breath, at the top of the climb, you’re treated to an amazing picnic lunch that’ll have you thinking, “they hiked this whole way with that in their packs?”

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The climb down is always easier, I find, than the way I up. Maybe because the end is in sight? I told you, I’m not a hiker. 

Here you start to see some really incredible views of Dalat and the surrounding landscape. We wound our way down through the jungle and even saw elephant prints deep in the mud as we crossed yet another river. The trail concludes near a private resort/camp that’s right on the water and, oh, what a beautiful place it is. The property has a number of horses stomping around and, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll catch them as they go down to the water for a drink.

The trek costs around $30 per person, which, for what you get out of it, is nothing. We arrived back to Wolfpack, sweaty, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear.

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Other Options

While we only had enough time for a day of canyoning and another of trekking, but after those two days we were absolutely beat. 

Dalat Adventure Tours offers a number of other itineraries, from white water rafting to bike tours to multi-day excursions. There’s no shortage of ways to explore this amazing city and countryside. 

If you’re looking to hop around Dalat on your own, it’s easy to rent a scooter or bike and go from there! If you’re interested in hiking the jungle, however, you’re probably best off with a guide. Some of the trails are very narrow and tricky to follow and that would be an awful place to get lost.

Happy exploring!

Wat to Do in Angkor

Everyone calls it Angkor Wat. Technically Angkor Wat is just one of the famous temples, but there are over 70 others to be appreciated as well! As a Unesco World Heritage Site, Angkor is listed as one of the most important archeological sites in all of Southeast Asia, and the largest religious site in the world. The ruins provide a glimpse into what life was like in the ancient Khmer Empire from the 9th to 14th centuries.

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If you’ve ever dreamed of climbing over tumbled stones and tiptoeing through cool, dark ruins, Angkor should be at the top of your bucket list. The sun glides over the ancient city with a tantalizing glow that makes you want to quit your job and become an archeologist. Dedicate at least 2-3 exploration days to give the surreal wonderland the time it deserves.

 

Planning your trip

The Angkor Archeological Area encompasses over 400 square kilometers. It would take weeks to see all of it. The ticket offices offer either one-day ($32) or three-day passes ($60). One day is not nearly enough. 

Let me repeat that. One day is not nearly enough.

Opt for the three-day pass even if you’re only planning on going for two days. It’s still cheaper than buying two one-day passes. If you really only have one-day, try to hit the major must-see’s like Angkor Wat for sunrise, the many faces of the Bayon, semi-restored ruins of Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider), and at least one of the smaller temples on the East Baray.

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Remember that Cambodia gets very hot, and the middle of the day is absolute murder. You WILL sweat through your pants. Plan to go in the morning, or just the afternoon. If you’re planning an all-day marathon, leave a few hours during peak heat to sit inside for lunch or sip a cold coconut in the shade.

An entire day in the sun will be extremely exhausting and you won’t be able to appreciate the legendary temples if you’re hot and cranky

We didn’t realize how enormous Ankor is. It can take 10-15 minutes to get from place to place, if not longer. Do your homework. Look at a map of Angkor, star your “must-sees,” and build your day based on regions around those sites. It’s much more manageable if you organize your day by groups.

We bought a guidebook for US$10, which made it very easy for us to pick our favorites. The book explains the history and original design of each site, and it also gives you a recommended route through them, pointing out key features along the way. It’s an easy way to avoid feeling cluelessly lost in an ancient world of stonework mazes.

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Getting Around

Being that everything is so far apart, walking is not a realistic option. If you’re traveling solo and/or strapped for cash, at least rent yourself a bicycle. You’ll sweat yourself silly, but it won’t take as long as walking. Better yet, rent a scooter if you’re a competent driver.

The best option though, Ankor by tuk-tuk. If you can expend the cash to rent a tuk-tuk for even one of your days, you’ll be able to explore so many more regions. Make a new friend and split the cost. Tuk-tuks can take you to the further areas of Ankor, and with few people wandering around, you’ll get some amazing alone time in one of the most serene sites of the world. Plus, tuk-tuk time is AMAZING for resting your legs and getting out of the sun for a bit. You’ll just really optimize your time and energy if you rent a tuk-tuk.

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Not to mention, most tuk-tuk drivers grew up in Angkor. Generations and generations (far more than you can honestly comprehend) have lived within these ancient walls. Their knowledge is unparalleled, and will greatly enhance your experience.

Try to avoid the time-wasting confusion that we had, and pick a time and place to meet up if you’re in a big group. Otherwise you’ll spend 45 minutes, like we did, waiting for each other at opposite ends of the temple. Also make sure you have your tuk-tuk driver’s name, license plate, and cell phone number if possible.

 

What We Did

We opted for the three-day pass, even though we only went for two days. As a group of 6, we were able to split the cost of two tuk-tuks, which ended up saving us time and energy, so we were able to pack in more sites per day. Plus, our guides were super informative and knew exactly where we should go, in what order, at what time of day.

We started our first day at about 1pm, so by the time we bought our tickets and really got into the grounds, the sun was low in the sky and people had already started to leave. It’s still hot, but it’s more manageable and way less crowded. Our second day was over by lunch. Albeit, we started before the day even began. By early afternoon, the high heat and exhaustion had us waving the white flag. We ended our day with lunch and went home for a well-deserved cat nap.

Here are some groupings of sites that we organized our trip by:

 

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is the famous walled city that remains to be the most recent location of the capital of the Khmer Empire, founded by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Inside the epic walls are loads of magnificently restored temples, namely Angkor Wat and The Bayon. These inner temples are normally busiest in the morning, right after everyone watches the sunrise. The South entrance itself is a breathtaking preview of what lays just inside. Well worth a stop.

Angkor Wat, unless you want to see it immediately after sunrise with everyone and their mothers, is best explored in the afternoon.

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Watch as the setting sun casts a perfect golden glow across the 200+ faces of Bayon - Ankor’s most iconic temple.

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Afterwards, we drove past the Elephant Terraces to the East gate.

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Like most other visitors, we wanted to catch the blazing sunrise over of Angkor Wat. We were picked up at 5 in the morning, which gave us plenty of time to get comfy before the sky went alight. If you’re insistent on being right up at the water for your perfect shot, try leaving a bit earlier. It gets tightly packed up front.

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Once the sun rises, everyone will rush to go inside. We opted to head straight for the farthest temples first, where there would be less visitors.

Baray of Preah Khan

The temples on the north side of the East Baray are generally smaller temples, and significantly less people in the morning.

Preah Khan

This far-out temple is mostly unrestored, with walls crumbled in and tunnels blocked by rubble. What was once a city/temple/university is now a beautifully deconstructed work of art.

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Walking around this temple in the early morning gives you a bit of scope as to how rigorous the creation of these buildings must have been, and how magnificent the architectural design is, down to the carved images in the crumbled stone.

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Neak Pean

The calm lake in the glistening morning light is reason enough to visit Neak Pean.

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The temple is made up of four pools, representing the four elements, connected to one central source pool with a shrine in the middle. Originally built as a hospital, the pools were meant for sick visitors to bathe in healing waters. Look for the intricate animals sculpted on the central temple!

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Ta Som

This small temple was built as a a dedication to Jayavarman VII’s father, Dharanindravarman II. One of the gopuras, or entranceways, is overgrown with an old strangler fig.

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In opposite corners of the central sanctuary, there are late cavernous rooms that were once libraries. Around the outsides, there are big open pavilions to have a stroll around.

East Baray

The East Baray was built as a water retention system, used for either irrigation or religious purposes.

East Mebon

This Hindu temple dedicated to Shivu is one of the older temples on the archeological grounds, built by Rajendravarman in the late 10th century. While it appears to be a temple-mountain, it was actually an temple-island back when the East Mebon was a filled. While it was once surrounded by water and only approachable by boat, it now stands as an obvious mountain among the flats of the dried reservoir. Look for the guardian elephants on each of the corners of the second tier! 

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Srah Srang

This reservoir still has water! It’s not full… but it’s still beautiful in the golden Cambodian glow.

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was selected by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to be minimally repaired, in efforts to provide visitors with an authentic experience as to how many of the temples were rediscovered after being surrendered to the jungle for centuries. Wooden boardwalks guide you around the ruins, passing stoic fig trees and crumbling piles of stone. 

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Plus, it was featured in Angelina Jolie's Temple Raider.

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Being one of the most popular temples, it’s usually pretty touristy. Expect to queue for a photo with the big trees...

Further Adventures

We didn’t make it to the farthest temples on our third day, but that’s our first stop whenever we go back! These are among the least visited sites in the entire acrchaelogical area, but also some of the most worthwhile. 

Banteay Srei is at the top of a hill, only accessible by a one-way road. Before noon, the road goes uphill. After 12pm, it switches and you can go downhill. Also, tuk-tuks can’t make it up the hill, so you have to rent a van or book a separate tour. It makes it a bit difficult planning-wise.

Phnom Kulen

This requires an additional $20 entrance fee separate from your original ticket, because it’s not technically part of the archaeological site, but rather a part of Phnom Kulen National Park. 

Kbal Pean

If you’re up at Phnom Kulen National Park, you can go see the sacred fertility waters nearby, Kbal Pean. Otherwise known as the “River of 1000 Lingas,” this Hindu shrine is unlike any of the other temples. The sandstone riverbed has been carved into  motifs depicting an array of Hindu gods, including Shivu, Vishnu, and Brahma. 

If you’ve got the time and are willing to shell out a bit more cash, you can make an entire day of venturing out to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Phnom Kulen  for a day among the unspoiled sites!

More Pictures

Best of Malaysia

A breakdown of our favorites

Best Experiences to Do for Free

  • See the towers in Kuala Lumpur

  • Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands

  • Hiking paths in Cameron Highlands

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  • Wandering around the Unesco Heritage Site of Georgetown on Penang

  • Visit the tea plantations in Cameron Highlands

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

  • Slowboat to monkey beach and turtle beach in Penang National Park

  • Shopping in KL malls

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  • A weekend on Langkawi

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

  • Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

  • Towers of KL

  • Batu Caves in KL

  • Street art of Georgetown

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  • Piers and jetties of Georgetown at sunset

  • SkyBridge on Langkawi

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Best Restaurants & Bars

  • Changkat Street in KL - great area for going out

  • Zouk - biggest club in KL

  • Grandmama’s in KL mall

  • Night market in KL

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  • Geographer Kuala Lumpur

  • Merchant's Lane Cafe in KL

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  • Cameron Curry House in Tanah Rata - we went three times

  • Food stalls in Tanah Rata

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub in Tanah Rata

  • Jungle Bar in Tanah Rata

  • Teksen Restaurant in Penang

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  • Mr Shwarma in Penang

  • Tipsy Tiger Bar in Penang - great for their cheap liquor, bar crawls, and free body shots;)

  • China House in Penang

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  • Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant on Langkawi

  • The Kasbah on Langkawi - amazing burgers, outdoor lounge seating, and all around chill vibes

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

  • Reggae Mansion in KL

  • Map Travelodge in Tanah Rata

  • The Frame Guesthouse in Penang - for a quieter, more minimalist stay in Georgetown

  • Honey Badger Hut Hostel on Langkawi - they have cool huts for private rooms and resident cows to keep you company on the patio at night

  • Vila Thai - huge hostel with big dorms, and they have scooter rentals and massages available even if you’re not staying there

  • Tipsy Tiger in Penang - if you wanna parttyyyy, otherwise you’ll be up all night anyway

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Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

  • All of the east coast beaches!

  • Sabah region of Borneo, but more specifically:

    • Orangutan Conservation Centre

    • Sun Bear Conservation Centre

    • Rainforest Discovery Centre

    • Mount Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu

    • Pom Pom Island off the East Coast

The Best of Penang, Malaysia

To date I have yet to find another city in Asia that I love as much as Penang, Malaysia. This island state is just off the northwest corner of the country and accessible by bus, ferry, or plane. 

 

George Town

The highlight of Penang is George Town, the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is city is unbelievably colorful and has a fascinating mix of British colonial buildings, vibrant street art, as well as Chinese and Islamic influences. We spent whole days doing nothing but wandering the streets and taking in the views, it is absolutely stunning. 

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One of the first things you can do is take a coach (or a hike, if you’re into that) up to Penang Hill to get an amazing overview of the city. We didn’t get a chance to do this, but from what we heard it’s well worth the trek up, no matter how you make it!

If you’re interested in a self-guided tour of the city, here are a couple of suggestions. The street art in Penang is famous, and for a good reason. The city-commissioned art is painted all over the city’s walls and is definitely worth seeking out. A good place to start is the Upside Down Museum and then walk in towards Little India (a conveniently great place to stop for lunch). 

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After visiting the street art, walk yourself towards The Blue Mansion, an amazing building that you can either take in from the street or catch a tour around the inside at either 11:00am, 2:00pm and 3:30pm. After touring this area, catch the sunset on the water down by the old town jetties (this wouldn’t be a bad time for a sundowner).

Looking to try some delicious & traditional Malaysian food while you’re here? Check out Tek Sen, a low key, family-owned place that’s well worth the seeking out. Absolutely try the homemade tofu and the pork belly - it’s unbelievable!

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Looking to go out? If you’re looking to stay and play at the same place, look no further than Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel. This is where we stayed and it was an absolute blast. This is NOT your place if you’re looking for a good night sleep. But if you’re looking to meet people over some cheap drinks and to play a couple of bar games, this is the place to start your night. Plus, the hostel staff will take you on a bar crawl after the place shuts down between 11:30pm and midnight.

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PS: late night kebabs or noodles are always a good idea

PPS: at Tipsy Tiger, body shots are free ;) just watch out for their photographer…

 

Taman Negara AKA Penang National Park

Pack up your sunblock and a swimsuit and don’t miss out on Taman Negara Pulau Pinang. This national park stretches along 3,100-acres of the northwest corner of Penang and is easy to get to from George Town either by bus or cab. 

Hire a longtail boat to take you to Turtle Beach and Monkey Beach, where you can laze on the sand or in the water and order an ice cold coconut from one of the colorful beachside shacks. The boat one-way costs roughly 40 ringgit per person, but you can negotiate for a return trip if you don’t feel like taking the 2ish mile hike back.

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Penang is sensational. Enjoy George Town, eat until you hate yourself, hit the bars at night, and take a day to enjoy the picturesque national park. While you’re there, don’t forget to catch a ferry to Langkawi, an adventure in and of itself. 

Airlie Beach & the Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsunday’s inevitably find themselves on everybody’s bucket list for Australia’s east coast. The picturesque string of islands just inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are home to white sand beaches, crystal clear water, and some incredible snorkeling. 

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Whitsundays with POWERPLAY

This was another tour we booked way, way in advance just because we knew without a doubt that we wanted to explore the Whitsundays by boat. 

We booked with a company called Whitsunday Catamarans on one of their smaller boats called Powerplay, which housed a maximum of 18 people. This size was perfect for us. After a couple of long days recovering from Frasier Island and the long journey LOKA took us on to arrive at Airlie, we wanted something a little more chill. 

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If you’re looking to party, like, really party, on a boat in Whitsundays, opt for a bigger boat with 25-30+ people. There are tons of options, so take the time to find what you want or ask the travel desk at Base Airlie Beach to help you out - that’s what they’re there for!

We had an amazing time on Powerplay. With the smaller size it was easy for everyone to get to know each other and our crew, Simon and CJ were a blast. The food was amazing and everything was taken care of for you while you were on that boat. 

You have the chance to snorkel, paddle board or take a cruise on the dingy if you don’t feel like dragging a stinger suit on (definitely necessary). Of course, there’s no harm is just chilling on the boat and catching some rays with a good book either.

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Whitehaven Beach

This beach is absolutely the highlight of any Whitsunday adventure. This beach is famous for its iconic swirling sand that you can glimpse at low-tide from one of two lookout points. While we were a little to late to catch low tide, we still got an incredible view from above. 

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When the beach is at low-tide, you can walk from one end to the beach to other across the smooth, white silica sand. Even if you don’t catch the low-tide, the beach at Whitehaven is my personal favorite place on the planet. The water is the perfect temperature and the pristine white sand feels like silk. 

Catch the rays for a few hours, cool off in the shallows and take a picture with the famous white-washed tree that’s a permanent fixture on the beach. If you venture deeper into the water, be sure to have a stinger suit on you! The highest number of stings by box jellyfish (those are the nasty kind) have happened at Whitehaven Beach.

Note: We didn’t have time to do this, but you can actually camp out on Whitehaven beach if you’re so inclined. It would be the perfect way to enjoy the beach at low and high-tide and get it all to yourself.

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Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is a small coastal city a few hours south of Cairns. Its famous as a launching port for the tens of cruises that leave for the Whitsunday Islands each day, but Airlie itself has a lot to offer off the boat. 

Meander around and check out some of the cute shops along the main drag, take a coastal walk down to one of the beaches, or spend the day chilling by the Lagoon - the city’s amazing public pool.

At night, if you’re looking to go out, you won’t have to look far. We didn’t make it there, but Mama Africa’s is supposed to be a great time and there’s no shortage of bars that’ll keep you out unreasonably late. Just don’t miss your boat or bus the next day!

 

Jet-skiing in the Whitsundays

We were excited to go jet-skiing in Airlie, we booked it was in advance as well, but didn’t expect to have as much fun as we did. We took our tour with Whitsunday Jet-ski and had an absolute blast. 

The hour we spent out on the water with Sean, our guide, was the time of our lives. He took us on a tour along Airlie’s coast and raced us across the open water at full speed. 

We’re both adrenaline junkies, so we our hands shot up when the guides asked who had a need for speed. If this is you, see if you can get with a group that’s feeling that vibe. You can only go as fast as your slowest person!

Fraser Island with Nomads Tag-a-Long 4x4 Tour

When people ask us about our favorite things we did in Australia, few things come to mind quicker than Fraser Island. We booked this on a whim and strong recommendations and went into it with zero expectations. We came out of it, sick as dogs, with friends from all over that we’ll no doubt hold on to. 

If you’re backpacking the East Coast of Australia, don’t miss out on Fraser Island.

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We began and ended our tour at Noosa Nomads, the hostel company that plans the Nomads Tag-a-Long 4x4 Tour. They offer 3-day and 2-day tours. If you have time, take the 3-day. 

Nomads also provides pre and post-night accommodation for you as part of your tour, which makes it easy to leave your heavy bag at home.

You’ll have a briefing the night before you leave, going over what to bring, what to expect, and your itinerary. 

Here’s our briefing for you:

  • Sunblock.

  • Don’t get caught up in the details. Maybe the meals and accommodation aren’t exactly to your liking. It’s just food and a place to sleep. It’s all about the people. The rest is extra. The tour is expensive and if you get caught up in the details you miss out on what you really pay for which is a kick ass experience.

  • Skip the make-up, it’ll melt off anyway.

  • Bring two swimsuits, you’ll swim every day.

  • Opt for the dorm over the tipi if you can (AC baby).

  • Bring 2-3 outfits tops, you’ll need to wash it all the you get back.

  • Download your playlists before you leave.

  • Be respectful of the guide and the wake-up/departure times. Don’t make people wait for you, it cuts into everyone’s day if you do!

  • If you aren’t a confident driver, don’t sign up to drive. Riding shotgun is honestly just as fun.

 

Fraser Island

Many people don’t realize this, but Fraser Island is World Heritage listed because it’s the largest sand island in the world. The native community on the island has a rich history, which the guide will be sure to introduce you to as part of your tour. 

It’s got unbelievable beaches, lakes, and jungles, and you’ll get to experience all of it! It also is home to a large number of dingos, Australia’s version of wild dogs. They may look cute, but dingos are wild animals. They’re pretty neat, but respect their distance. 

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Getting to the Island

This was easy peasy. Your guide will pick you up by bus at Noosa Nomads early in the morning. From there it’s a relatively easy bus ride up to Rainbow Beach where you pick up your 4x4’s and catch the ferry over to Fraser. 

When you pick up the 4x4’s you’ll be split into cars that you’ll be with the rest of the weekend. You’ll get to stick with the people you’re traveling with but that’s about it. The rest is random, depending on how big the group is, whether or not the cars are manual or automatic, and depending on how many people want to drive. 

We had an absolute blast with the people in our car. They became some of the best friends we’ve made on our trip and we’ve all made plans to meet up again in our respective countries (the U.S., Canada, and Sweden). However, if you don’t automatically love the group you’re with, a. give it time and, b. don’t panic, usually everyone is together as a larger group anyways.

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Food & Accommodation

It’s basic, but everyone is covered. Whether you’re vegetarian or gluten free, there’s food for you and enough of it. Sandwiches, pasta dishes, etc. It’s easy food that everyone can be happy with - trust me, you won’t go hungry!

With the Nomads tour, you stay at Eurong, which has a bar and pool and is right on the beach. Your choice of accommodation is either dorms or tipis. Both are good, you really only are there to sleep, but the dorms have AC, so if that’s a priority get the dorms!

 

Driving Around Fraser Island...

…is not for the faint hearted. The 4x4’s can and do handle a lot on this island and they need a firm and confident hand behind the wheel, especially in manual. When you’re driving through the jungle and on the beach you’re going to need to keep up with the car(s) in front of you, so if you’re nervous, don’t offer to drive. 

You do have the option of trying a drive on the easier sections of the beach and switching when it gets too much. No matter how many people want to drive, everyone who wants a turn will get one, so don’t stress about it! 

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What You’re in For

You mean other than the time of your life?

You’ll be journeying around the island to some of its most beautiful locations, including:

  • Lake McKenzie

  • Champagne Pools

  • The Maheno Wreck

  • Indian Head

  • Eli Creek

  • Lake Wabby

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At each location, you’ll have plenty of time to explore, relax, swim, or play a game of beach volleyball with your crew. You’ll picnic each lunch and head back to Eurong each night to party at the bar and break into the pool after its been locked up at 8pm. 

Fraser Island is picturesque and chances are you’ll sign up to explore it with a group of kickass people from around the world. We had an absolute blast and if you relax and go with the flow of each day there’s no way you won’t as well.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay was the first stop on our big east coast adventure. We flew into Brisbane and caught a 2-hour shuttle south to the hippie surfer town to kick back for 4 days. If you’re thinking about spending time in Brisbane, consider Byron Bay as a more laid-back alternative.

Cape Byron 

The namesake and spirit of this little beach town, Cape Byron is made for adventure. Whether you swim, surf, hike or kayak around it, you’ll be able to say that you’ve been to the Most Easterly Point of Australia - but don’t miss a photo op with the Cape Byron lighthouse!

Byron Bay is also home to a lovely family of bottlenose dolphins. The unique shape and angle of Cape Byron protects the bay from strong currents, plus its shallow depth deters predators from hanging around, making it a calm, safe haven for our rubbery friends! If you’re interested in getting up close and personal to these pals, book a tour with Go Sea Kayak. You have the option of either a morning or afternoon adventure to hop in a boat with a buddy and paddle out around the Cape. 

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Even if you don’t see dolphins (which is always possible - nature can never be controlled), it’s well worth the view of Cape Byron. You can spot the lighthouse from a far, and you can watch the surfers shred some gnarly tubes! Plus, Go Sea Kayak will give you the unique offer of coming back for free to have another shot at seeing some pretty porpoises. 

Surfing in Byron Bay

Byron Bay is known for its superb surfing. There are loads of companies who are willing to drag you out to the wave break and get you up on a board. Contrary to it’s northern big brother Surfer’s Paradise, Byron Bay is perfect for beginners. The waves are usually smaller and break on an angle to the beach, giving you more time to get up on your feet. 

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Black Dog Surf Company took me out on my very first surf lesson, and quite a success it was. I even managed a double switch foot by the end of the day! The lesson was small and geared towards first-timers. As with most surf lessons, we started with perfecting our form before even getting wet. Then we lined up in the water and were sent off into the Byron Bay waves, one-by-one, with dedicated direction from the instructor. Their lessons aren’t very long, and sometimes Byron Bay may feel a bit busy with other beach-goers, but it’s a great way to start surfing!

Mojo Surf gave me my second lesson, and I’m glad I had some previous experience. Instead of surfing in Byron Bay, Mojo brought us south to Lennox Head. As usual, we started with stretching and dry practice. While there were blue skies above, there were rough waves on the beach, making for some seriously tough learning conditions. The safe section of beach was a bit limited, so many of us felt too crowded to give it our best shot. There were significantly more students than instructors, so a lot of the learning was on our own. - but when they were nearby, the instructors were quick to help and send you off on a good wave! Plus, the on-beach photographer is there to snap a pic if when you pop up! After the lesson is over, you get to go for a dip in the rusty colored Lake Ainsworth, a.k.a. Ti Tree Lake.

If you come to Byron Bay for a surf lesson, do some research on the local companies. If your experience with surfing is little to none, you may want to do a one-day lesson with a smaller group to get you started. If you’ve shredded before and want to take your skills to the next level, consider booking one of Mojo’s more advanced surf camps for a totally wicked experience!

Hostels in Byron

Arts Factory, owned by the same company as Mojo Surf, is a funky, colorful, good vibes hostel geared towards chilled out backpackers. They have a series of 10-bed tipis if you’re looking for something different, but they also have your classic dorm-style rooms with ventilation. The open-air campus has plenty to keep you busy. Their pool is perfect for a midday dip, or spend the evening sipping drinks on the pond-side benches, or even chat with the monstrous lizards who will keep you company during breakfast. They have weekly activity schedules for all types of explorers… word has it that the nature walk is very informative!

Nomads is also a great place to meet other backpackers and enjoy some loud nights. There are lots of long-term guests, making for nightly in-house shenanigans reminiscent of college dorm parties. They also have an outdoor courtyard with hammocks and hot tubs for a spot to chill out during the day, or socialize over dinner and drinks with some new friends at night. Plus, Nomads is right in the downtown area. You can easily hop over to any of the many restaurants and bars any day of the week. The streets are always alive.

When the Sun Goes Down

If you only have one night in Byron, you must walk down to the beachfront for sunset. It is truly magical. Pop a squat on the sand and watch the fog roll into the trees as the sky turns pink. If you’re a dog lover, get ready to start crying tears of joy. The beach is overtaken by happy puppers chasing birds and playing fetch. Heaven on Earth.

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Walking back up towards town, you’ll immediately feel the change in atmosphere. There are groups of happy folk singing and dancing even just on the beachside promenade. Every corner of Byron is a stage for performers to show off their string-picking skills or harmonic vocals. You might just find Australia’s best new artist on your walk home.

Food and Drinks 

Byron Bay is full of hidden gems. For some unique food options, check out:

  • Orgasmic Food - Middle Eastern with the best falafel ever

  • Legend Pizza - the perfect late night stop, certified thumbs up from New York pizza snobs

  • Elixiba - unbelievably flavorful vegan dishes (try the coconut flesh calamari)

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For drinks or a good night out, try:

  • Railway Friendly Bar - laid-back, good vibes pub with a beer garden and live music every single night (for the last 30 years!!!!)

  • Beach Hotel - pretty big venue with ticketed events throughout the week

  • Woody’s Surf Shack - the go-to nightclub for young partygoers

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Taking the “Loca” LOKA Tour of Australia’s East Coast

We booked our trip up Australia’s east coast before we even left New Zealand. Our friends at the Travel desk in the Base Hostel in Queenstown advised us to book what we definitely wanted to do in advance instead of waiting just in case anything filled up during the popular summer holidays. 

We ended up booking three weeks worth of travel, accommodation and tours from Byron Bay up to Cairns before we even left Queenstown. After finally getting to experience it all, we can honestly say we had the time of our lives. Major thanks to Jules & Nick, who both seriously hooked it up for us. If you’re in Queenstown and looking to book tours in NZ or AUS, we definitely recommend you go talk to them.

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The method to our east coast madness was to take a LOKA bus/train tour from start to finish. We took the Kat Tour (pictured above), but there a ton a options to choose from. This is one of the two most popular travel options for people (and by people I mean backpackers) looking for a tour/travel combo, the second is Greyhound. Both companies can book tours for you in each location and give you the flexibility to hop-on, hop-off as you like. 

The key difference, as we understand it, is that LOKA makes use of the train system as well as buses, Greyhound operates with just their own buses. We both agreed that, while the trains are very nice and comfortable, the idea of just not having to get on and off constantly to switch from one to the other would’ve been nice. Definitely check out both options to see which you’d like better, but either will get you where you want to go. 

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If you know your time frame and your budget and you don’t want to rent your own car, another great alternative, these two companies are your best bet. If you can, especially during popular travel times (for us, our December dates coincided with school break in AUS so you can imagine), book your pick-ups and tours in advance and then just show up. 

LOKA runs buses nearly every day at all major stops on the east coast and everyday at the most popular ones. Check out their schedule online and make sure you reconfirm your pick up locations a day in advance with your driver. That’s about all you need to do! 

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When the drivers pick you up they deal with everything between your start and final destination. This includes train tickets, stops, and door-to-door stops at different hostels along the way to collect and deposit people. Everyone we met who worked for LOKA was incredibly nice and helpful with any questions we had. The buses were clean and cool and everything ran smoothly. Yeah, the hours are a little nuts (hello, 4 a.m. wake up), but it’s called budget travel for a reason people!

From start to finish, our LOKA tour included:

  • Byron Bay

  • Brisbane

  • Noosa (Fraser Island)

  • Rainbow Beach

  • Emu Park

  • Airlie Beach (Whitsundays)

  • Magnetic Island (this stop included the ferry to get to and from the island)

  • Cairns

We booked through Base Travel, so our tours weren’t booked through LOKA itself, but you can book through most hostel travel desks or just do it yourself! LOKA is a great way to get around the east coast without a car and doubles as an excellent way to meet cool people looking to do what you’re doing. 

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Exploring Fremantle, Australia

The “Brooklyn” of Perth.

Fremantle is a charming community on the coastal southwest of Perth, only a 30-minute train ride from the CBD station.

Fremantle Market

Immediately upon arrival, our hosts at Bambu Backpackers made it incredibly clear that Fremantle Market was a not-to-be-missed attraction of Perth. As most travelers would agree, markets are a great way to browse local culture. 

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Every stretch of the warehouse is crowded with stalls, each one bursting with delightful distractions. Between the handmade leather bags and the obscurely colorful crafts, the Fremantle Market will make anyone feel like a kid again.

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Upon stepping into the sunlight-flooded food court, the bustling excitement alone will make you want to buy a treat. The smells of pan-frying and slow simmering will surely tempt you into one of the stalls. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your hot food and absorbing the lively atmosphere under an upside-down field of dried flowers.

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Marine Parade Park

If you walk to the edge of Fremantle, you’ll empty out of the quaint neighborhood streets into a big open park. Along the edges of the well-loved community space, grand towering pines hide the bright red, bedazzled ferris wheel. It’s the perfect place to soak up the sun, pick up a game of football, or even take a swing at the skate park. 

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You don’t even have to take a ride on the ferris wheel to appreciate it’s beauty. It’s unassuming location behind the pines grants it an air of humbleness, but when the afternoon sun blazes behind it, its presence shines throughout the park. 

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Little Creatures Brewery

Just across the train tracks from the sunny park, right on the water's edge sits the Little Creatures Brewery. The giant industrial brewery features a glowing pizza oven (an obvious attraction for us), only overshadowed by colossal fermentation tanks lining the warehouse.

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Little Creature’s “Bright Ale” can be found on tap at most bars around Australia, but an afternoon on their outdoor terrace can’t be beat. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a casual lunch by the water, or even just an afternoon cold one.

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City Streets

The streets of Fremantle could be pulled straight out of a book. The pastel storefronts and godly white columns are reminiscent of childhood stories, and the slow-paced aura of the town will make you feel like you’re living in one.

Be sure to make a stop in one of the magical bookstores to really solidify that feeling of wandering through a fairytale.

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How to Backpack the Best Two Months in New Zealand

It's impossible to see the best of any country in just two months, but here's a breakdown of how we did it:

 

Car Camping

There are lots of ways to get around New Zealand, but we decided a rental car would be the best way for us to see some of the more remote attractions. Simply put: it's the easiest way to do it. We each had a 70L backpack to fill with out essentials. Check out their contents here!

Bringing trustworthy camping gear will take your trip to the next level. New Zealand is decked out with TONS of campgrounds in the most stunning landscapes you'll come across. It's well worth the extra few pounds to be able to pitch a tent at the base of Mount Cook.

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Best Things We Brought

Camping gear to sleep under the stars.

Small luggage locks to secure our belongings in hostel lockers - they provide the safes, but you'll have to rent a lock if you don't bring your own!

Tarp/sitting blanket for a quick picnic. Doubles as a groundcloth for your tent!

Rain jacket because rain.

Hiking boots so you can climb those peaks.

External battery pack for your electronics, especially while camping.

Solar lanterns for easy lighting anywhere!

Fixed wide angle lens for landscape photography - MJ's personal favorite.

Mini bluetooth speaker to broadcast your tunes in the hostel kitchens.

Navigation app (maps.me) to get around the country. You'll thank us later.

Camping app (CamperMate) to find the best campgrounds that fit your budget.

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Best Things to Do for Free

Hiking Nelson Lakes

Stargazing in the Makenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Swimming in the Blue Pools

Drive up to the Remarkables Ski Area

Coromandel's Hot Water Beach + Cathedral Cove

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

*Renting a car!!!!!!! (JUCY)

Marlborough Wine Tour

Banquet Tour at Hobbiton (for all those hungry hobbits out there)

Marine mammal tours in Kaikoura

Cruise in the Fiordland National Park

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Ocean murals of Napier

East Coast Highway of the North Island

Castle Hill (a.k.a. Weathertop)

The Mermaid Pools in Matapouri

Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area

Key Summit Alpine Loops in the Fiordlands

#LoveTaupo

Paradise Road

Farmlands of Southern Waikato

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Best Cities to Hit

Queenstown

Wellington

Napier

Wanaka

Kaikoura

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Best Restaurants & Bars

Kaiaua Fisheries in Kaiaua

Emporium Bar & Eatery in Napier

Rata in Queenstown

Capital Nomads Bar in Wellington

Fitzpatrick’s Irish Pub in Wanaka

Lakefront pub place in Wanaka 

Cowboy’s in Queenstown

Surreal in Queenstown

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Best Hostels

Crash Palace in Rotorua

Bad Jelly Backpackers in Kaikoura

Tailor-Made Backpackers in Tekapo

BASE Hostels in Wanaka and Queenstown

On the Beach Backpackers in Hahei

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Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Lake Wharakemoana

West Coast of the South Island

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

Routeburn Track (Key Summit Trail was a great substitute though!)

Another night in Wellington

Skydiving above the Remarkables

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Things to Remember in New Zealand

Drive on the left side of the road!!!!!

It’s not customary to tip, but 10% is appreciated for exceptional service.

Leave No Trace. Our wild lands are worth protecting.

You probably won't see a kiwi, but give it a shot!

Always ask DOC officers for recommendations, but take it with a grain of salt. KNOW YOUR OWN CAPABILITIES!!!!!!
Book huts and campsites way in advance during peak season - everyone else knows how beautiful it is too!!!!

Be prepared for weather that’s worse than you anticipate. Always.

 

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